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Emergence: What I am becoming Part 2

Okay then, part 2 of what I think might well be a three-part series (you can check our Part 1 through this link).  My intention here is to talk about three interdependent pairs and how they play out for me personally and professionally. It is part of the story of ‘what I am becoming’, with some sense of past experiences to give a sense of ‘what I have been’.  It feels like it might be quite personal, yet I will also take the opportunity to try and unpack how my navigation of these interdependent pairs is a key influencer in the quality of coaching I bring to my client partnerships.  Perhaps you can use this as a template to bring to the surface some interdependent pairs that are significant for you, and how a better personal understanding of them might help you understand what helps you to do what you do.  I am sharing some enquiries that will support you in this if you are interested in giving it a go.

A quick reminder on how Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) describe interdependent pairs.  HSD talks about how any complex system is governed by multiple interdependent pairs which co-exist and interact with each other.  The membership of each pair are opposites of each other and there is a ‘tension’ between them because of this.  It might be that a complex system exists fully at one or other end of an interdependent pair.  Much more common is to be somewhere on the continuum between the ends of each pair, with the position influenced by tensions connected to other interdependencies.

A complex system could be a country, an organisation or a group of people….and many other things besides.  Today the complex system I am alluding to is me, and my encouragement is that you think about the complex system that is you!

Here we go then!  Three interdependent pairs, each under the own heading.  Let’s see where this goes!

Meritocracy/ egalitarianism

Some years ago I was walking with my wife and some friends in Sussex.  We came across Shipley Mill where Hilaire Belloc, the 20th century author/ historian/ politician, had a home.  Outside the house is an information board where we paused to reflect on the life and times of Mr Belloc, who I vaguely remembered from childhood as the author of verses about what happened to badly behaved children! 

The following is an extract from the plaque:

‘Hilaire Belloc was the ultimate outsider, neither wholly English, nor wholly French.  He was an opponent of capitalism who dreaded socialism, a deeply religious man who scorned piety, a loyal and caring friend, yet a relentless foe to those who crossed him.  He was a middle-class man whose company was sought by those in high society, a man who loved with naive fondness the 'unlettered' country people, but knew that they would never accept him as one of their own.’

I didn’t have any immediate strong response to this until Derryn quietly said to me ‘a lot of that sounds like you’.  To be honest I was confused as I have no French ancestry, am not religious, and don’t spend too much time talking politics!  When I asked what she meant, she said it was about not fitting to a particular mould, being non-conformist, often approaching things in a counter-intuitive way.  We did not talk too much more about it at the time, yet have done so since in a way that I have found both helpful and quite difficult.

Thinking about my relationship with meritocracy and egalitarianism came from Derryn’s observation and those subsequent conversations.  I was prompted to trace my connection to these two very different viewpoints back to my two grandmothers, Gran and Nana.  One came from a well-to-do background and although kind and loving she was a little austere.  What I learned from her was that if you work hard and do well then there should be an appropriate reward.  As well as being influenced by Gran I was myself a beneficiary of a meritocratic 11+ examination system, being one of the last cohorts to sit the Grammar School entrance exam.  I passed, and can remember well the feeling of a few weeks of pride in the meritocratic outcome, alongside the equal and opposite feeling that I felt as a result of my Nana’s influence.

Nana was in service before WW2 and worked in a munitions factory as part of the war effort.  As a child I admired how she treated everyone in the same way.  To her, all people were equals to be cared for and respected equally.  She never tried to persuade me of this, it was simply something she passed on through her behaviours.

Alongside the pride that I felt in succeeding in the 11+ I recall a feeling of unease with the divisiveness of the system, and the inequality it fostered.  I perhaps would not have used these words all those decades ago, yet the feeling of unease was real and one that comes to the fore in any and all situations where I feel equality is threatened.  It is something of a heartfelt response; something from my core.  Countering it is the more head-felt, logical acceptance that hard work and good outcomes should be rewarded.  Between the two there is a tension which, for the most part, plays the role of keeping my egalitarian and meritocratic elements in a balance which is part of the authentic me.

There is an interdependent pair captured here in Greg Payce’s pottery ‘Monsieur Arouet’.  The space enclosed by the clay and the liminal space around it, most particularly between the vessels.  Photo by Jeremy Hinks at a Messums West exhibition ‘Liminal and Lenticular’.

Expert/ novice

That word ‘tension’ comes to mind straight away when I think of this interdependent pair.  I can feel it now as I am typing and am wondering how I am going to find the right words!

I am thinking about how the first half of my professional life was about the pursuit of expertise and the desire to be known as an expert.  I was a research chemist for a long time, surrounded by clever people in white coats!  They were experts and my development was all about becoming one of them, or at least part of me held to that narrative.  Another part of me was always seeking something new, something fresh, something where being a novice corresponded to a period where everything seems possible, where learning is exciting, and where interesting connections can be made.

Of these two polarities I have felt compelled at times, particularly in early to mid career, to focus on the journey towards expertise and to push away an interest in seeking new challenges.  For the most part this has been relatively comfortable as I do enjoy conveying my knowledge to others, and to be experienced as an expert by them.  I also enjoyed being around people I identified as expert and listening to them sharing their knowledge.

I recall times when a consequence of labelling these colleagues ‘expert’ was that I was less inclined to challenge their opinions, or to share my own.  What I might not have been quite so clear about was that when I was in the role of expert, perhaps I was less open to hearing the alternative views and opinions from others!  I don’t believe this to be the case but looking back wonder there was some blindness to my own behaviours.

In the second half of my career I have become much better at recognising that variety is important to me.  It’s not just a device to distract me from expertise.  It’s a preference, and a capability, to cover a lot of ground at a significant level of complexity, rather than focussing on one in incredible depth.  I think it was an American general who said ‘if I am the expert in the room then I am in the wrong room’ to indicate their desire to benefit from the wisdom and experience of multiple others.  I definitely buy into this as on many occasions the wisdom and experience of others has opened up new possibilities for me.

My journey towards ever greater expertise peaked while in academia before it changed direction towards becoming a more comfortable novice!  As a coach I approach each coaching partnership as if I am a novice.  Having done this for a long time I am completely at ease with this role.  After all, how can I possibly be an expert in the thinking and feeling of someone else?!

At the same time I do engage in a great deal of CPD as I love learning.  In doing this I gain expertise but I don’t use it as a license to take on the role of expert in a coaching session.  Instead, I back myself to make connections that will be meaningful to my client that connect with the experience they are sharing and, where appropriate, my lived experience and accumulated skills base.

That is not to say that I always get this right as there are circumstances where I can feel a need to share my knowledge for my sake rather than my clients.  I have learned to control this in the moment it is happening.  Afterwards, as part of my reflection on the coaching, I consider which of my other interdependent pairs might have caused an abnormal tension between expert and novice within me. 

Evidence/ emergence

This is such an important one for me.  For so many years my scientific wiring focussed me towards the evidence end of this interdependent pair.  My expectation of anyone sharing a belief with me would be that they were able to provide evidence to support it.  I expected to be treated in the same way. 

Similarly, if someone proposed a course of action to move a project forward, I would be interested to hear about the precedent they had to support their proposal.  The precedent arising from this past experience is a proxy for evidence, something that validates a particular course of action until the actual evidence of the implementation of that action becomes available.

An evidential focus is a powerful and useful one.  Yet, as with all behaviours it can be unhelpful if held too tightly, or overused.  After all the expectation that evidence will be available depends on a belief (where’s the evidence for this?!) that there is a relationship between cause and effect.  In complex systems the relationship between cause and effect is rarely as simple as we might wish to believe!

Looking back, I think that I have always had a slightly uncomfortable relationship with evidence and the highly logical and cognitive driven behaviours that are key to pursuing it.  I think the pursuit of evidence is something of a learned behaviour for me.  My preference for a long time is to engage in thinking about complex systems in which cause and effect cannot be easily related.  I enjoyed situations where I can simply notice what is emerging and to use that, in the moment, to influence my next choice.

Interestingly, I find myself wondering about cause and effect, in my growing preference for emergence over evidence.  Has it happened as a result of my long journey as a coach, or was it a preference that drew me towards coaching in the first place?  My belief is that the latter is true, although I cannot offer much in the way of evidence!  What I do now is thrive in working with the relational complexities that are both the subject of coaching, and central to the partnership between myself and my clients.  I enjoy being curious together and trusting that something of value will emerge for the client, that they will recognise it when that happens, and new possibilities will emerge as a result.

There is a lot more for me to say on all these interdependent pairs, yet I will keep that for my own reflection.  Sharing even more is unlikely to convey greater clarity.  Indeed, to say more might be to lay claim to an expertise that I don’t have or desire to have.  It might also be thought of as fulfilling the need for evidence which I claim I no longer prioritise.  Instead I will draw things to a conclusion with something that has emerged for me as I have written this piece, preceded by some enquiries you might find interesting to pursue….

  • Think about the words you might use to label some interdependent pairs that capture the nature of who you are and how you choose to behave?

  • Think of your life’s journey so far and find stories that describe your changing position on the line that connects each of the interdependent pairs that interest you?

  • What comes up in terms of thinking and feeling when you reflect on how these interdependent pairs interact with each other?

  • If you have a particular challenge to address think about the interdependent pairs that might characterise that challenge, and be interested in what emerges as you do so.

In the context of ‘what am I becoming?’ my realisation is that it does not relate to the direction of travel within a particular interdependent pair, although I have implied that such a direction exists, particularly in the last example.  What is more important in the ‘what am I becoming?’ story is the naming of the interdependent pairs that are of interest to me right now, and how they are changing over time.  What is also important is understanding that my version of authenticity is based on the ability to navigate the territory between the ends of each of my interdependent pairs, and the consequent ever changing interaction between them.  It is not defined by hitting some sort of ‘sweet spot’ on the spectrum between each of them. It’s more changing and emergent than static and defined.  Interesting, this is a point that I had not anticipated reaching at the start of writing my reflections.  That seems fitting somehow!


If you are interested what you have read here, or you are keen on having a thinking partner to support and challenge you in pursing enquiries like to ones above, please do get in touch using this link.  For more about interdependent pairs from the Human Systems Dynamics Institute click here.


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